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Chapter 9 - Day 4 Morning

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 September 2022

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Summary

MM40/69/952 Perfume Necklace

When the elders were shown a string of ostrich eggshell beads interspersed with small organic beads, they immediately identified it as a scented necklace (figure 9.1). We asked what the organic beads were, and they identified them as a type of root called nt*xai sah, which is an ingredient used in making a perfume called ghi. They said that the corms are not for decoration; they are worn for their perfume. Cyperus longus or C. margaritaceus are probably represented. They are not edible, but have cosmetic, deodorising properties, as does Kyllinga alba, another likely candidate. The necklace is usually worn by women, but men can wear it too. We asked how the corms are collected. The leafy part of the plant is known to the San, they said, so when they see it they use a digging stick to find the corms, which do not occur singly but in clusters. We wondered if all of the corms would be removed, or only those of a particular size. The elders said that all of them would be removed, and once back at camp sorted according to size for a necklace, while those remaining would be crushed for making perfume.

This object stimulated a discussion about innovation. We asked the elders about the reasons that would motivate a woman to integrate the corms into an ostrich eggshell necklace when nobody else does it that way. Their answer was that when someone makes something new, the others may copy her. When she wears the new necklace, and people visit her, they will smell the perfume and ask about it, and she will explain that these are the roots used for perfume, and that she decided to make a necklace out of them. If they like it, they will adopt the new way. We pointed out then that her explanation appeared to us in contradiction to what they had said on the second day, about adopting a new type of bow that would allow men to shoot animals from further away than their own type (see chapter 5). In that case they had said that they would have tried the new bow but, even if it was more effective, they would always come back to using their traditional bow.

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San Elders Speak
Ancestral Knowledge of the Kalahari San
, pp. 169 - 182
Publisher: Wits University Press
Print publication year: 2021

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